The stories of Métis women’s lives – both their histories and present day – are not often told. Stories of Métis Women: Tales My Kookum Told Me aims to remedy that.
The collection of stories recounted in English and Michif by northern and western Métis women will hit the shelves in bookstores on Aug. 15.
With Canadians seeming to be more engaged with Indigenous peoples, it is an opportune time for a publication from Métis women, said author and co-editor Bailey Oster.
Some of these recollections add to the narrative on residential schools that is sparking conversations across Canada.
“I think we’re tired of not having our stories being told … and having other people tell our stories for us. I think everything came together very serendipitously and the time that we’re in in our country is a really important one and people are willing to listen to the stories,” said Ms. Oster, who joined with Marilyn Lizee to put together the collection.
“Dark Times” is the third of four chapters in the collection and includes tales of residential schools, the ’60s Scoop, and the child-welfare system.
The chapter opens with a letter from 1880 to the Saskatchewan Herald (Battleford) from Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin in which he states, “That one hundred Indian and halfbreed children be brought to the mission, when they leave they will no longer be Indians, being able to become good citizens, earn their own living, and be useful to their country.”
In this section, former Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen, who was the first Métis woman to be elected to the Alberta legislature in 1989, recounts what she knows of her mother’s time at residential school, where her mother Mary stood up for the younger girls.
“Then one day she decided that she wasn’t gonna stand it anymore. She couldn’t fight for everybody. So, what she did was she ran away … she ran away and she took off from residential school.” The tracker went looking for her but found she had safely returned to her grandparents’ home and he left her. Years later, the tracker apologized to Mary for not helping her or other children at the school.
“I never knew why she didn’t know how to read. And that’s the reason why, because she ran away from residential school,” wrote Ms. Calahasen.
Dianne Ludwig recalled her grandmother hiding her and her siblings in the woods because she was scared of the priests and the RCMP and didn’t want the children to be taken away to residential school.
“And even a squirrel chirping in a tree – she’d tell that squirrel to be quiet in Cree and she’d tell that squirrel, ‘Quit making so much noise, you’re going to tell them where we’re at.’ Yeah … she was really, really scared,” wrote Ms. Ludwig.
“Dark Times” also recounts stories about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, racism and discrimination, and loss of culture and history.
“We can’t ignore the dark history. We can’t ignore our hardships and our struggles. We knew that would come out in the stories and it 100 per cent did and we had to talk about that. But I wanted to end it on a happy note. I didn’t want to end it on a sad note. I wanted to end it showing where these women are today and how they succeeded,” said Ms. Oster about the book.
The 14 women whose stories are featured are a who’s who of Métis women: Muriel Stanley-Venne, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women; Bertha Clark Jones, co-founder of the Alberta organization which eventually became the Native Women’s Association of Canada; Delia Gray, for whom the building that houses the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) is named; and retired Edmonton Police Services officer Lisa Wolfe.
Ms. Oster said she and Ms. Lizee didn’t set out to gather stories from such prominent women, but restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic limited how they were able to reach women so they drew on their connections. Ms. Oster, who is a manager with the MNA, is also vice-president of New Dawn Society, the Métis Women’s Organization, while Ms. Lizee is a consultant for the MNA.
“We knew there’s no way we could tell everyone’s story, so it was trying to find women from all around the province with varied experiences,” said Ms. Oster.
Each woman contributes to the three other chapters in the book: Nation Building; Métis Culture and Identity; and, Resiliency and Celebration.
“The fact that Métis women are still here, we’re still telling our story, we’ve never given up, we’ve never stopped fighting, I think is really powerful, a testament to the strength of our great grandmothers and to our grandmothers that are here today,” said Ms. Oster.
The stories are also offered in Northern Michif, translated by Mary “SkyBlue” Morin. Ms. Oster said with so few Michif language speakers still alive, the translation was part of that work toward revitalizing the endangered language.
The stories, in English, will also be available in a 20-minute Vimeo film by Ontario Métis filmmaker Matt LeMay. Many of the stories were on video, said Ms. Oster, as some of the women did not feel comfortable writing their accounts. The book will have a link to the film.
Ms. Oster would like the book to connect with members of the Métis community, as well as with non-Indigenous readers.
“I was hoping people who are non-Indigenous and are looking to learn more about Métis history and culture could pick up the book. It’s not an academic text or anything like that so I think it’s more accessible maybe than some of the other titles that are out so that it’ll create a more basic understanding of the history,” she said.
Ms. Oster says being part of this project was an extraordinary experience.
“I knew Métis women were strong and Métis women were resilient and had amazing stories but I think going through and reading some of the struggles and hardships the people in my community, people I have known for years and years and years, I just didn’t know these things about them. And some of their stories really, really sat really deeply with me and really impacted me. I’ll take them with me forever…. It shaped the way I view my own culture and history in a different way, maybe than I have before,” she said.
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